Jury finds Kristina Lowe guilty of manslaughter

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PARIS — A lawyer for Kristina Lowe said Thursday he would appeal her guilty verdicts on two counts of manslaughter in the high-speed crash that killed Rebecca Mason, 16, and Logan Dam, 19, both of West Paris, in 2012.

The seven-woman, five-man jury also found Lowe guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, but found her not guilty of two counts of aggravated operating under the influence. During about five hours of deliberation, the jury also considered two lesser charges of criminal OUI, and found her not guilty.

Lowe, 21, of Oxford, will remain out of jail on $50,000 unsecured bail until sentencing, which had not yet been scheduled.

Defense attorney James Howaniec said he and and his co-counsel, Chelsea Peters, would appeal what he called a “confusing” verdict.

“This was the last verdict we expected,” he said, that the jury found Lowe not guilty on any alcohol-related charge but still convicted her of manslaughter. Without that element of intoxication, Howaniec said, the verdict was difficult to understand.

Howaniec said his appeal would include an argument that bringing Lowe’s father, Earl Lowe, to testify out of order had an undue impact on the jury. “He said some pretty inflammatory things” on the stand, Howaniec said. Howaniec had tried to have Active-Retired Justice Robert Clifford declare a mistrial on that out-of-order testimony but was denied.

Earl Lowe was subpoenaed to testify Tuesday but did not show up in court. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was brought to court by deputy marshals Wednesday morning. The state had rested its case, but the judge allowed it to reopen its case so Lowe’s testimony could be heard.

Earl Lowe told jurors that his daughter told him, her mother and Maine State Police Trooper Lauren Edstrom that just before the accident she heard her phone ring and looked down. That’s when the car began to drift, she said. She also told them that Dam reached over from the back seat to correct the direction of the car, and Lowe lost control, her father testified.

During the trial, Howaniec argued that there was no evidence Lowe was driving, no evidence she was intoxicated or that she read an incoming text just before the crash. He framed the accident as one in which a young girl was driving “a little too fast,” and panicked afterward from the stress, shock and pain she suffered during the crash.

“We think this was an accident,” Howaniec said.

Lowe was charged with five felony counts in connection with the fatal accident on Jan. 7, 2012, on Route 219 in West Paris: two counts of vehicular manslaughter, two counts of aggravated criminal operating under the influence and one count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

She faces up to 30 years each on the manslaughter charges and another five years on the remaining conviction.

Jerrold Mason, Rebecca Mason’s father, called the jury verdict “fair.”

He was very emotional during the trial, crying several times when testimony touched on his daughter and Dam being left behind at the car while Lowe and  passenger Jacob Skaff of Paris walked back to a party where they had been earlier that night. He was stoic as the court clerk read the verdict, though, quietly standing straight and watching Lowe.

Mason said it was much too soon for him to think about forgiving Lowe, or any of the other kids, including his daughter, who made bad decisions that night, but he said the verdict will help him start to sort out everything that had taken place.

The hardest part of the past two years, Mason said, was understanding how Lowe and Skaff could have left his daughter and Dam in the car and walked away. “Who would walk off and leave somebody?” he asked, when the nearest ambulance was a two-minute drive away.

Lowe’s conviction on the charge of leaving the scene of an accident was important to him, Mason said, because it means the jury recognized that she didn’t meet her duty under the law to help her injured passengers. “I just don’t know how somebody can do that to somebody else,” he said.

Mason’s wife, Tracie, did not attend any of the trial testimony but was in the courtroom for Thursday’s verdict. She left immediately after it was heard.

Kristina Lowe’s mother, Melissa Stanley, left seconds later, running from the courtroom before the judge formally adjourned the trial. Lowe had to be helped from her chair and out of the room, shaking and struggling to stand up.

Throughout the trial, Lowe sat ram-rod straight and nearly motionless between Howaniec and Peters. Early in the trial, a court officer replaced her wooden chair with a padded office chair in deference to her lingering back pain as a result of the wreck.

Assistant District Attorney Richard Beauchesne called 20 witnesses to make the state’s case that Lowe had arranged for alcohol to be available at a party she attended at 12 Yeaton Lane in West Paris on Jan. 6, that when she arrived at the party she appeared to be drunk and that she continued drinking right up to half an hour before the fatal accident.

Lowe’s blood was drawn at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway around 2:30 a.m. to test for blood alcohol content and drug use; the BAC came back at 0.04 percent and the blood tested positive for marijuana.

The state’s case included seven eyewitness accounts of party-goers who testified that Lowe laughed off a crash that occurred several hours before the fatal accident when she was doing “doughnuts” in the driveway of the party location and rammed into a tree stump on the front lawn.

Several of those party-goers also testified that Lowe wouldn’t let anyone else drive the car she had borrowed from Dakota Larson, and that they saw her get in the driver’s seat when she left the party with Skaff and Dam just before midnight. Many also testified that Lowe told them after the crash that she had been texting and driving when she lost control of the car.

Beauchesne also presented an audiotaped interview Lowe had with Edstrom in which Lowe admitted to drinking two shots of Jagermeister, but initially denied driving the car at the time of the crash. Lowe could be heard telling Edstrom more than a dozen times that Skaff was driving, but Lowe wavered on that point when Edstrom pressed her. By the end of the 34-minute audiotape, Lowe could be heard telling Edstrom that she and Skaff may have switched drivers when they stopped for gas and cigarettes at The Big Apple in West Paris minutes before the accident.

During that interview, Lowe expressed concern that police would interview her friends at the party and she didn’t want them to get into trouble, and Lowe also asked the trooper whether police had been able to recover her purse, her license and her MaineCare card from the wreck.

After learning that Mason and Dam had died in the crash, Lowe could be heard asking Edstrom, “What if this is all my fault and I get nailed for, like, manslaughter and stuff? What if … ?”

“That’s why it’s important that we know what happened,” Edstrom told her.

Skaff, who was given immunity in the case in exchange for his testimony against Lowe, told jurors Monday that Lowe was driving the car that night. He said the Subaru they were in had a five-speed transmission and he doesn’t know how to drive a manual shift.

In defending his client, Howaniec called a number of experts, including a meteorologist, a physics professor and an array of medical personnel who treated Lowe several hours after the accident. The medical personnel described Lowe as a scared young woman who was in great pain and who seemed cooperative and sober.

The meteorologist testified that the weather conditions on the night of the crash were “ripe” for the formation of black ice, and the professor testified that the Subaru Impreza was traveling much slower than Maine State Police calculated when it went airborne into a stand of trees.

Police estimate the wreck happened at 12:15 a.m. on Jan. 7, minutes after Skaff bought six cans of Four Loko and Lowe paid for $5 worth of gas at The Big Apple in West Paris between 12:05 and 12:10 a.m.

The text message she received was time-stamped on her phone at 12:11 a.m.

After the crash, Lowe and Skaff walked back to the party where their friends called 911. During the trial, the state hammered its point that the two walked past 24 houses without stopping, forming the basis for the felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident.

The jury went into deliberations at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, and close to 1 p.m. asked the court to better explain the legal definition of operating under the influence. They also asked to be read back the testimony of Dr. John Barbieri, a forensic toxicologist with MNS Labs in Willow Grove, Pa.

Barbieri testified Monday through a video link from his office in Pennsylvania, with an explanation of the marijuana levels detected in Lowe’s blood.

Beauchesne walked him through the science of blood evaluation, and the doctor said his lab detected reportable levels of the active ingredient in marijuana that causes what he termed the “desired effects” of the drug. But, based on the lab results, Barbieri also said that he could not testify to whether Lowe was impaired by the level of marijuana in her system.

There was no medical testimony offered about the injuries Mason and Dam suffered because the defense agreed to stipulate before the trial that the two died as a result of blunt-force trauma. The defense also stipulated that Lowe’s borrowed car had no mechanical defects.

The court was prepared for trouble Thursday, with 10 State Marshal Service deputies in the courtroom for the reading of the verdict, including Chief Deputy Ted Ross. They were stationed to block all aisles and doors when the jury was led back into the room, during the reading of the verdict, and as the jury was excused.

The special arrangements were made at the request of the defense, which had originally asked the court not to permit Jerrold Mason in the courtroom, but later agreed to upgraded security. Before the jury was brought in, Clifford made a special announcement that outbursts would not be tolerated. The verdict was read without incident, with family members and friends on both sides of the courtroom sobbing out loud.

When Lowe is sentenced, the families will have an opportunity to address the court. Mason said he intends to do that.

He said he had taken some comfort in the past two years knowing that he had been a significant force in changing state law to make it illegal to text and drive, legislation prompted by the deaths of Mason and Dam. He said he would continue working to further strengthen these protections.

Mason also said he hopes that young people — especially those living in the Oxford Hills — will recognize the consequences of texting and driving and be responsible behind the wheel.

“Maybe some kids will learn,” he said. “Maybe they’ll pay attention to what they’re doing. They’re going to end up paying, and it’s not worth taking that risk.”

And he thanked the community for its support over the years. “This is never going to be over,” he said, but “some justice is being served.”

 

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